Many of us who grew up in the church are familiar with the term “sabbath.” Some of us may have childhood memories of changes in family routines or of what we weren’t allowed to do, rather than the positive aspects of a day of rest. For example, when I was a child, I could never understand why my dad took a nap on Sunday afternoon, but never on any other day. As an adult, I understood. A Sunday nap was a welcome rest in an otherwise busy week.
God gave sabbaths to preserve a rhythm between productivity and rest. Sabbath was a reminder that as creatures, God didn’t design us to work all day every day. Sabbath is a gracious provision by God of a time of rest for our well-being. Taking a rest is also a reminder that we ultimately depend on God for our livelihood; it doesn’t depend on a frantic work routine. Sabbath is also a reminder that when we see poor folks among us who can’t make it on six days of labor, it is up to the rest of us as a community that has more than enough to find ways to share with those in need.
In my recent re-reading of Leviticus 25 and 26, I was struck by the fact that God not only created a need for rest into people, but also into the land. It is not only the people who need a rest, but it is also the environment itself which provides for our physical needs which needs a sabbath. Sabbath is a principle meant to apply to the whole system which is otherwise focused only toward production, toward money and material things. Yes, God’s gift of the land and earning an income is for our provision. But it is also for our enjoyment. It is for taking time to rest and reflect, and give the land time to be renewed and restored just like the people.
Sabbath is a reminder to honor God in worship, to trust God in our economic life, to share with those in need, and to delight in God and what God has provided. Back in Leviticus before the children of Israel entered into the land that had been promised, as they were still in that pause in routine between slavery and moving into the land, God reminded them about the principle of sabbath, even for the land.
God reminded the people that there were consequences for not keeping sabbaths and allowing both people and land to rest. There were consequences for structuring their life together in ways that abused the land so that some people became rich and powerful while others suffered poverty and premature death. There were consequences for not trusting God enough to observe sabbaths but instead pushing production until workers died and the plants withered in the land.
But the biggest consequence for Israel was that they would lose the land. God told the people, “7But if,, despite this, you disobey me, and continue hostile to me,… 32 I will devastate the land, so that your enemies who come to settle in it shall be appalled at it. 33 And you I will scatter among the nations, and… your land shall be a desolation, and your cities a waste. 34 Then the land shall enjoy its sabbath years as long as it lies desolate, while you are in the land of your enemies; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its sabbath years. 35 As long as it lies desolate, it shall have the rest it did not have on your sabbaths when you were living on it.”
This is God’s way of enforcing sabbath or restoring sabbath, letting God’s people suffer the consequences of not worshiping and trusting in his provision, of not sharing with the poor, but instead working to death both their brothers and sisters as well as the land itself. The land will be desolate so that it can observe the sabbath rest never previously provided for it. The god of production and selfishness and greed will be overthrown so that the land can have its rest.
During this current time of pandemic, I have been struck by certain images. There is New York City, arguably the richest, most productive city in the world, with streets deserted of traffic and sidewalks empty of people. There is Los Angeles, once considered the city of smog, with clear sunny skies and the mountains visible in the distance. All over this country, there are vast empty parking lots, and sports stadiums with no game on the field or fans in the stands. The symbols of our collective greed and failure to provide rest now stand desolate.
And the coronavirus has also reminded us that while some of us complain about not being able to shop or play ball or even attend worship services, others around the world are suffering an enormous impact in losing even the low-paying multiple jobs that were keeping them going. And our brothers and sisters in places like Kenya and South Sudan suffer drought from the effects of global climate change.
Could it be that the coronavirus is the modern-day enemy that has driven us off of the land? Could it be that we as a country have been bowing so readily at the altar of the almighty dollar, that we have forgotten God’s principle of sabbath rest? Could it be that God is saying to us, in effect, “My earth needs this rest from all of your smoke and pollution which poisons the waters and skies of my creation.”?
In the past number of years, those folks who study God’s creation have been telling us that we need to drastically reduce our pollution of the planet, or the results will be even worse than what we are experiencing today. Yet we stall and deny and try our best to carry on as usual. In the COVID-19 pandemic, God is giving us another chance to quit focusing on making money and once again start caring for each other, particularly the poor and marginalized, and caring for the earth which He wants to redeem and make new.
Leviticus 26 continues: “40 But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors, in that they committed treachery against me and, moreover, that they continued hostile to me… if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, 42 then will I remember my covenant…and I will remember the land. 43 For the land shall be deserted by them,… 44 Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, or abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God; 45 but I will remember in their favor the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, to be their God: I am the LORD.”